I am continually interested in how our beliefs shape our behavior, if indeed they do. This notion is especially important when considering extreme behaviors such as murder and pedophilia. While it is not uncommon to discover that mass murderers seem to have been “wrapped up” in some kind of sub-culture morality or extreme political/religious ideology, we also have to bear in mind that justifications for behavior come both before and after an act. If it comes before an act, was it ideology based (i.e. ideology governed the behavior), and if the justification comes after the act, is it an excuse (i.e. a rationalizing of the act – to oneself or the public)?
In terms of learning and repeating certain kinds of motor behavior, it seems obvious that certain repertoires get set into our brains (the cerebellum plays a key role in this). But how do beliefs manifest themselves as behavior? The obvious thing to do here would be to ask, “Okay, what is a belief?” – I’m going to work with the delightfully vague definition of “something I take to be true.” And what is truth? That’s an easy one. It’s something that provides me with reinforcement.
In an immediate way, we trust our senses and take the subsequent perception to be true because they facilitate our navigation and passage through our environment, providing us with very necessary information – if these senses fail us, then they are not being true (this happens even when there are no deficits/disorders/diseases hindering the transduction of environmental stimuli). But in a conceptual sense, knowing that Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, firstly can be reinforcing because it promotes the positive feeling that I know something, and secondly, knowing this fact can facilitate the accumulation of more knowledge around it; everything we know about Dickens fits together and is facilitated by the fact that Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist. Clearly, our senses and our conceptions are not always right, which tells us something very important; learning requires us to shun the potential for reinforcement, and this can be very unsettling.
Ideology, therefore, is the stream of conceptions that has provided us with maximum amounts of reinforcement – more so than any other alternatives. This is clearly why we all have different “truths” about the world. So in terms of our beliefs governing our behavior, we are clearly expecting some kind of reinforcement upon the completion of the act; even suicide and the idea of suicide can seem highly rewarding in terms of how the individual sees their life, or how they would like to be remembered by others. The more planning and thought that goes into these acts, clearly increases the likelihood of the outcome. The more thought, the more anticipation of the reinforcer. The act becomes inevitable, at least for the individual, provided no one intervenes. This anticipation, probably leads to a behavior protocol.
After the event, however, people still turn to ideology to justify it, and if this is the case, they probably never understood why they did what they did, or they were taking pleasure in toying with the media and the public (such as David Berkowitz telling the press that his neighbor’s dog was telling him to murder), or they felt telling the truth behind their motives would not be met with much sympathy or understanding. In the first instance, confusion, it is not hard to see that we do a lot without thinking – in fact, that’s a good thing because if we had to think through every little thing we do, such as preparing food, walking to and from the store, brushing one’s teeth, or picking up a hot drink, we would never get anything done. But this doesn’t really require ideology as an explanation, unless you want to get metaphysical. This lack of explanation could also apply to serial killers and serial rapists; they do what they do because the only way they get maximum exhilaration is by committing extreme acts and engaging in excessive drug and alcohol intake; ideology as an explanation is not required here. While there is this impulsive behavior, it must also be noted that many attacks are also highly planned, which takes us back to ideology motivating behavior.
It’s easy to see why psychopaths would throw ideology at the media; the public likes a good story and the fact that they are manipulating the public while remaining in the spotlight would no doubt assuage their ego; but as this is contrived nonsense, it is not an explanation of ideology explaining the act in question. Telling the truth about the thoughts and planning that went into a killing, is simply admitting that there was ideology before the killing.
Ideology has to be present before the act for it to be used as an excuse for the behavior. If ideology wasn’t there before the behavior, then you can’t make the behavior fit one. This is important because it tells you that the act was governed by impulses and the reptilian brain, rather than the use of the frontal lobe, which is involved in planning and forecasting. This difference can tell you something about the neurology of the individual, and tell you about the kind of person you are dealing with.